Yuchi Old Folks Dance Both a form of dance and an event, the Stomp Dance is practiced by many of the Native American peoples of the southeastern United States. The term corresponds to two different aspects of the same phenomena: A stomp dance is a nighttime event during which several different specifically named dances may be performed, for example the Friendship Dance or the Duck Dance. The most common of these dance forms, however, also is known as the Stomp Dance. Of the modern native peoples with historical ties to Alabama, stomp dances are performed by the Creek, Cherokee, and Yuchi peoples in Oklahoma, but their dances are evocative of the dances and events that these groups performed in Alabama prior to removal in the 1830s. Other Eastern Woodlands tribes, including the Caddo, Shawnee, Delaware, and Chickasaw, also perform the Stomp Dance.
Stomp dances are generally performed several times a year during the summer months and are timed according to a ritual calendar specific to each community and its ceremonial ground. These dance grounds are both places and social organizations, much like houses of worship or fraternal orders. The ceremonial ground is the physical location where stomp dances take place, and its membership is often determined by family relationships through descent and marriage. Ceremonial grounds typically consist of a square dance area where the sacred fire is located, arbors that surround the dance area and provide seating for the ground’s male members, and families’ camps on the periphery where food is prepared and served. The spatial arrangement of today’s ceremonial grounds is reminiscent of those in prehistoric tribal towns, and many ceremonial grounds in Oklahoma trace their origins to tribal towns throughout the Southeast. Evening stomp-dance events may stand alone, but they also often coincide with formal town rituals, such as the Green Corn Ceremony. According to tradition, the dancing continues throughout the night as a ritual obligation that insures the community’s wellbeing. No major ceremony is considered properly concluded without a lively all-night stomp dance event as its finale.
The Stomp Dance itself is a group dance for both men and women. In each performance, a man is asked to lead the singing for one round of dancing. The leader may be chosen for his skill in singing or to recognize the visiting ceremonial ground he represents. When he is announced as the next leader, he files into the town square and begins circling its sacred fire. Those wishing to participate in the dance line up behind him in a single file that spirals counter-clockwise around the fire. The leader and other dancers move forward throughout the dance, alternately walking (before and sometimes between individual songs) and dancing (while singing), in a stomping step from which the dance takes its English name. Women and men alternate in position behind the leader and organize themselves according to age and skill with the youngest and least experienced dancers, including children, at the end of the line. The men answer the call-and-response songs of the leader, and the women establish a rhythm appropriate to the singer’s performance by shaking paired sets of leg rattles. These rattles are customarily made from terrapin shells or more recently empty tin cans, and women tie them around their calves. Women also wear long skirts or dresses and sometimes a yarn belt. Men’s attire for a stomp dance is almost indistinguishable from everyday clothing and can include a Western-style hat or ball cap adorned with a feather and beadwork and a yarn belt. Songs are often shared widely among the various groups, but the vocal style used by singers varies among both individual singers and communities. For example, Cherokee singing during stomp dances has qualities that set it apart from Creek singing.
Other social dances have specific fixed songs and choreography, but among many peoples of the southeastern United States, the Stomp Dance is the foundation of evening dance events. Typically beginning just after sunset, these events may include some 30 or more performances of the stomp dance, each sung by a different leader and lasting between three and 20 minutes each. Dancers typically perform other named dances, such as the Duck Dance, Friendship Dance, or the Bean Dance, only once if they are included in an event. Dancing continues until the sun rises, at which point the event is concluded. In recent years, members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, centered near Atmore, Alabama, have begun relearning Stomp Dance performance from Oklahoma Creek ceremonialists.
Jackson, Jason Baird and Victoria Lindsay Levine. “Singing for Garfish: Music and Community Life in Eastern Oklahoma.” Ethnomusicology 46 (2002): 284–306.
Jackson, Jason Baird. Yuchi Ceremonial Life: Performance, Meaning and Tradition in a Contemporary American Indian Community. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Levine, Victoria Lindsay. “American Indian Musics, Past and Present.” In The Cambridge History of American Music. Edited by David Nicholls. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.